- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Damion Grant was getting punished in the post. He took an elbow to the face, wasn't converting baskets and took some constructive criticism from North Carolina coach Matt Doherty a little too personal.
But, for better or worse, Grant will have to play this season for the Tar Heels. The freshman center is big -- 6-foot-11, 262-pounds big. And, while he hasn't played basketball for more than two years since coming to the U.S. from his native Jamaica, Grant will have to give UNC post minutes simply because the Tar Heels are void of veteran post players.
Oh, who will he back up or play with? Other freshmen.
Freshmen like Sean May, who showed that he could be a leader by getting into Grant's face on this particular day last week and encouraging him to stay with the play, will likely be a starter. He's a vocal, more polished player, but still is one of the Tar Heels' biggest players at 6-8, 272 pounds. Who else? Former football recruit David Noel, a swing player at 6-6, who in his first season will likely get time at small forward and even more as an undersized power forward. And don't forget 6-9, 225-pound freshman Byron Sanders.
And that's just inside.
The Tar Heels will likely start two more freshmen on the perimeter in point guard Raymond Felton and wing Rashad McCants. North Carolina is going to play a more uptempo system in Doherty's third season, with Felton looking to push the basketball at every opportunity. But he'll have as many as two to three other freshmen on the court with him at all times. Sure, sophomores Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott might start; Jackie Manuel and seniors Will Johnson and Jonathan Holmes will get minutes; but this team will be dominated by freshmen more than any other in Carolina history.
To handle this kind of pressure, this much exposure, these kind of expectations, the freshmen have to be tougher than their ages suggest.
"What I saw was toughness and competitiveness beyond their skill and drive and quickness," Doherty said of his recruiting class. "I saw a desire to win. I saw that in these guys in practice like I hadn't even seen before."
The freshmen also have a swagger about them, a confidence that they'll be able to handle the heat. Freshmen are off limits to the media, at least in the immediate future, which isn't unusual for most high-profile programs. But UNC's class of 2006 (if any stay at UNC that long), more so than last season's freshmen who had to endure a losing season and no postseason, seems more ready to contribute.
"We won't know until we go through it, but there is a personality with these kids that is different," Doherty said. "They're competitive and they're winners. They're not afraid to go out there in front of a large audience.
(McCants poured in 36 points, while Noel scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and Felton added 17, in UNC's annual Blue/White scrimmage in front of an all-time high of 14,000 fans last Saturday.)
"They are talented, they are confident but they aren't afraid. They listen and they are smart and listening to me is as important a talent as running and jumping."
But can a group of freshmen playing such crucial roles be successful in the ACC? Normally, the answer would be not likely, considering the annual talent that flows into the confernece. But 2002-03 appears to be a transitional season for more ACC schools than not. It'll certainly be the case at Georgia Tech, where Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack need to contribute. Duke also has five freshmen who'll see plenty of minutes after its top three scorers of a year ago left early. Maryland has four seniors, but only one starter returning in Steve Blake, off last year's national championship squad.
Carolina has no choice but to put its faith in fresh faces. No matter how talented, it won't be an easy transition for any of them, but they'll have to adjust quickly.
"All six of them are going to play a big role on this team," Williams said. "They have to realize that in this league, freshmen don't get the calls and there will be bumps in the road and they'll just have to play through them. Raymond and Rashad will have to learn that guards can't just get into the lane in the ACC. They have to work on their pull-up jumper to get it done in this league."
Carolina's six newcomers might be the most important collection of freshmen to a team's success not only the ACC, but in the country. They have to produce or the Tar Heels won't make progress this season. That doesn't mean leading the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament, although Doherty wouldn't mind it. But a sniff at the NIT and showing improvement from a year ago -- even though they weren't part of the problem -- is a must.
But North Carolina isn't alone. Plenty of freshmen classes will play a major role in deciding who gets to the NCAAs and to some extent, who wins the national title. Pick a team in the top 15 (outside of Kansas, Pittsburgh, Georgia and Xavier) and at least one freshman, if not several, will be asked to be more than role players.
Here's a look at other teams counting on freshmen to carry some of the load:
Arizona: The Wildcats were missing an athletic, slashing wing last season. Arizona coach Lute Olson said that's why they couldn't match up against teams like Kansas, Oregon, Connecticut and Oklahoma. But the answer arrived with freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala. Adams is a ready-made player who comes from a disciplined high school program. He was already defensive oriented and can get to balls off the backboard that the Wildcats couldn't touch last season from the wing. Iguodala isn't as advanced, but he provides a necessary push for Luke Walton off the bench and has the slashing ability to give Arizona a different look when he comes into the game. If the Wildcats need another combo guard to back up Jason Gardner, Will Bynum or Salim Stoudamire ... Chris Rodgers is more than capable. He could play major minutes in most programs, but there might not be enough room for another shooter and ballhandler -- at least this season. And the surprise so far has been freshman forward Chris Dunn. He's already pushing sophomore Dennis Latimore for minutes. Dunn is wiry thin, but he's quick to the ball and gives Arizona yet another scoring forward to go along with Channing Frye, Isaiah Fox, and of course, Walton and Rick Anderson.
Duke: The Blue Devils have six freshmen, of which as many as two could start, possibly three at times this season. Four to five will play major roles. And, like Carolina, Duke will lean on freshmen to score and defend in the post. Shelden Williams must be a factor inside for Duke to win the ACC. Shavlik Randolph has to be the inside-out or outside-in presence that makes him one of the tougher matchups. J.J. Redick is one of the purest shooters to land at Duke and if he can snap 3s, then suddenly it becomes a question of "Who to guard?" with the Blue Devils returning proven scorers Chris Duhon, Daniel Ewing and Dahntay Jones. Freshman guard Sean Dockery is proving to be a more than capable backup to Duhon at the point and someone to hold over him if he's not playing well. Michael Thompson is another backup post player who could be good for 10 minutes, while walk-on Lee Melchionni could be a specialist off the bench for the occasional 3-pointer. All six should see some time and must produce for this team to be a Final Four contender, not just an ACC champ.
Indiana: The Hoosiers won't replace Jared Jeffries with a freshman, but they will start one in the backcourt and have the talent to start two if anything were to happen to Tom Coverdale at the point. Indiana had to bring in another scoring wing with the departure of Jeffries. Sure, senior Jeff Newton will replace his spot on the court and could end up being more like a Jeffries as an outside-in scorer. But he can't do it alone. Indiana needed another scoring option, even if it was on the perimeter. Bracey Wright can deliver and be a double-figure scorer. He's proven it in practice and is as mature as any freshman to come into Indiana in the past three seasons. Wright can make shots from the 3-point line in and gets to the basket quickly on the break. But his defense makes him an instant hit, allowing Mike Davis to press with a younger team. He earned immediate respect from seniors Coverdale and Kyle Hornsby, and has their confidence to get him the ball in big-shot situations. Meanwhile, Coverdale's backup is freshman Marshall Strickland. He doesn't act or talk as if he were a wide-eyed freshman. He's mature and will push Coverdale in practice more than Donald Perry did last year. Strickland can get to the basket with one move and makes perimeter shots to stretch the defense. Indiana's redshirt freshman forward Sean Kline must play once he gets healthy because of the thin frontcourt. Froward Daryl Pegram might be two years away from helping because he's not physically developed enough yet.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim isn't going to hide his convictions on Carmelo Anthony. He said he would be not only the Big East's freshman of the year, but also take the national honors as well. He's saying he's that good and will have that much of an impact for the Orangemen. If he's as good a scorer as he proved in high school, not to mention exhibition games (Anthony netted 37 in his Syracuse debut), then he should be everything Boeheim expects. The Orangemen lacked that all-everything scorer from the wing. Preston Shumpert was too predictable a scorer as a shooter. But Anthony can do a bit of everything to get his points. That makes him even tougher to defend. Freshman Billy Edelin, once he's deemed eligible after playing in an unsanctioned men's league in Syracuse last year, will be the starting point guard. He gives the Orangemen a true point and a steady playmaker they sometimes lacked under DeShaun Williams last season. And, in Edelin's absence, Boeheim will go with fellow freshman Gerry McNamara. He's more of a combo guard but he can play the point. Even forward Matt Gorman will get some quality minutes rotating in with Craig Forth, Hakim Warrick and Jeremy McNeil in the frontcourt. If Syracuse gets a sniff of the tournament, let alone the Big East West Division title, its freshmen will be the reason.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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